The NHL lost an entire season in 2004-05, the year Alex Ovechkin should have come into the league as a 19-year-old rookie. The owners locked the players out back then because they insisted that the financial model for the league simply didn’t work. They insisted on a salary cap — and got it. They demanded a rollback in pay — and got it. For all intents and purposes, the players caved.
Regardless of the tactics employed to get the players’ concessions, the new system worked. In the seven years since the lockout, revenues for the league have gone up by more than 50 percent, from $2.1 billion to $3.3 billion annually. TV ratings, a huge problem, have improved measurably, and the league signed a new contract with NBC that has given it wider exposure than ever before. The league launched the Winter Classic, which has been a boon to hockey’s popularity.
Players also benefited. Even with a hard cap, salaries have skyrocketed and the fact that there is also a salary floor has helped non-stars make more money, too.
The owners’ response to all of this when it was time to sit down at the bargaining table was direct: Not good enough — we need more. Their initial offer would have cut player compensation by 24 percent. They also added that if the players didn’t make a deal by the time the contract expired— Saturday at midnight — they would lock them out of training camps, which are scheduled to open next week.
The two sides have since traded offers, but the bottom line remains the bottom line: The NHL wants more and it wants the players to accept less — again. The players, led by former baseball union chief Donald Fehr, are willing to accept some cuts — but not the cuts the owners want. And so, there is a good chance that hockey fans — arguably the most loyal fans in sports — will face another fall without hockey.
The issue appears to be the wide gulf between the have and have-not franchises. The Minnesota Wild signed two players, Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, to long-term contracts this summer worth almost $100 million each. Having lost Suter, the Nashville Predators felt they had no choice but to match the $110 million contract that the Philadelphia Flyers offered to their other free agent star, Shea Weber. The New York Rangers happily took high-priced, high-scoring winger Rick Nash off the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets at a bargain price: about $47 million for the next six years.
The Capitals are far from hurting. Almost five years ago, Ted Leonsis signed Ovechkin to a 13-year contract worth $124 million. Even though the Caps haven’t made it past the conference semifinals since Ovechkin’s arrival, they have played to sold-out buildings virtually every night for the past four seasons.